SALT LAKE CITY — Forty teenagers representing 10 high schools from Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties came together Monday with a question to answer: How do you create lasting change and prevent school violence, even after media attention of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting has faded and the well-publicized walkouts and coming marches are over.
The event, created and organized by the Deseret News, was headlined “Beyond the March” to empower students and amplify their voices for change.
Student body officers came to the Utah State Office Building wearing their school sweaters: orange for Skyridge, light blue for Westlake, royal blue and yellow for Orem, dark red for Lone Peak, and black and white for Highland. Other students came because they are involved in their student newspapers or consider themselves activists.
Rivals on the sports fields, students from the different schools walked across the room to introduce themselves, greeting each other with hugs and smiles. Although from different cities and different social groups, all of the students had one thing in common: they have grown up with the reality of school shootings. And all of them are trying to figure out what they can do to change that reality.
“We want to be prepared for events like this,” said Sam Nafus from Bountiful High School. “We want to make a difference, and we want it to be a sustainable difference.”
Principles of change
Joseph Grenny, a social scientist and author of books such as “Influencer” and “Crucial Conversations,” facilitated a discussion among the students and shared what he has learned about successful social movements from his research.
He began the conversation by showing a photo of tents lining Wall Street, and another photo that showed a sign with the word “Occupy” written in large letters. Most of the high schoolers did not remember the international “Occupy” movement against social and economic inequality that started in 2011 and censured large corporations and financial institutions. And there’s a reason for that, he said.
“What was the result of the occupy movement?” Grenny asked. “The answer is nothing.
“The occupy movement was just we don’t like the world the way it is,” Grenny said. “And so, the world is still the way it was.”
According to Grenny, public demonstrations are an important part of any movement, but beyond the demonstrations, there are six categories of social influence. In addition to setting clearly defined goals, successful movements utilize all six categories to impact not only people’s motivation to change, but their ability to act on that motivation.
“Help them love what they hate, help them do what they can’t, provide encouragement, provide assistance, change their economy and change their space,” Grenny said, listing the six areas.
Based on principles taught by Grenny, the students broke into groups and discussed their own ideas for influencing legislation, making mental health resources more widely available, improving security and changing the culture of their schools.
Stephen Hansen from Lone Peak High School said the “change their economy” idea made him think about how some people seek attention through violence. “We want to help them to get recognition for positive things instead,” Hansen said as he brainstormed ways for students and teachers to be more supportive of each others’ successes.
Many students shared their desire to help classmates get access to mental health care by providing encouragement, assistance and making resources more widely available.
“The people who do this (school shootings), they are not choosing it,” said Madelyn Bokovoy from Orem High School, as she considered Grenny’s advice to avoid focusing solely on the motivation behind people’s actions but to consider their ability to change their behavior as well.
While some students honed in on influencing the behavior of potential school shooters, more focused on influencing the behavior of others in the community who might be able to help kids in need, or prevent those kids from having access to guns.
Ryann Abunuwara from Orem High School said the principle of “helping people love what they hate” gave her an idea to create a video campaign where gun owners talk about safety strategies and safe gun legislation they support.
“Sometimes when you talk about gun legislation, it turns into an attack on the Second Amendment,” said Abunuwara. “But everyone is pro-safety. So we want to change the conversation to be not anti-gun, but pro-safety.”
Though the students had different ideas about what they wanted to see changed, they were able to talk about their goals and how they might achieve them.
“It’s important to have clear, measurable results,” said Matt Simmons from East High. “If you don’t have an end goal, there’s no point in what you’re doing.”
A different movement
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox also addressed the students and shared why he thinks the movement against school shootings has already set itself apart from so many other movements.
“We’ve had school shootings before. They are all different, but they are all very tragic,” said Cox. “We’ve seen adults being sad about losing their children before. But this time, it’s not the adults we’re hearing from, it’s the kids.”
With two sons in high school, Cox said he felt particularly close to the issue and was amazed that a month after the Parkland shooting, it was still being talked about.
“What I’m most impressed with is that those students and you have decided it’s time for your voice to be heard.”
Students at the event made it clear that they are ready to voice their opinions and take command of the school safety issue.
“This is our conversation,” said Isaac Reese from Brighton, who wanted his peers to know that they have an important point of view. “Adults need to understand it’s our turn to speak.”
“Change starts from the grass roots,” said Camden Brown from Bountiful. “We have to fuel the flame.”
What teenagers want
While some of the students came up with a list of gun policy reforms they wanted, including universal background checks, longer waiting periods and an end to the Dickey Amendment, more focused on ways they could change their own schools.
Isabel Cowley from East High said that her school does not put enough of a focus on emergency drills. “We would not know what to do in an emergency,” she said. “Adults should know that we are not paying attention or taking it seriously.”
Elizabeth Love from West High School asked a group of about eight students, “If you were having mental health issues, would you know who to go to at your school?”
“No,” a majority of the group answered in unison, each expressing a desire to have dedicated mental health professionals on staff at their schools whose services were easily accessible and not stigmatized.
“We don’t want to stigmatize mental health problems and make people think just because you’re having trouble, you’re going to be violent,” said Zeia Woodruff, also from West High.
The group of 40 seemed to agree that being kind to one another and creating an inclusive environment is foundational to preventing school violence.
Their ideas for action included having activities during lunch to get people interacting with those they normally wouldn’t, creating gender sexuality alliance clubs for those who feel excluded due to their gender or sexual identity and having more open and vulnerable conversations about the challenges everyone faces and how to overcome those difficulties.
“It doesn’t have to be on a legislative level. You can be that change,” said Alessa Love from Westlake High School.
Boyd Matheson, Deseret News opinion editor, ended the meeting by encouraging the group not to underestimate the power of their own influence and to work hard to accomplish the goals they had set.
“Whether you’ve come here with guns as an issue or school safety as an issue, or mental health as an issue, we hope you’ll walk away today with some new ideas and new strategies,” said Matheson.
“Now what? That’s the test.”